Learn to execute before you innovate

Mar 18, 2010 by

In the Jazz Process there are fourteen principles that form a continuum that progresses linearly from the most fundamental principles to the more advanced:

These fourteen principles are effectively divided into four groups:

  • Working: Five principles support individuals working within a team.
  • Collaborating: Four principles enable a team to work in synergy so that their combined efforts produce more value than the sum of their individual efforts.
  • Executing: Three principles ensure successful execution.
  • Innovating: Two principles facilitate creativity and its application to delivering solutions.

I am often asked why innovating is the final step and why it is only supported by two principles. Isn’t innovation the single most important goal and a critical measure of success? Innovation is certainly important. It enables a team to produce a unique offering that can differentiate them from their competitors. However innovation is not the only way to be successful. In many cases simply delivering a higher quality offering and/or delivering it faster than anyone else is enough to lead the field. If you can come up with something unique but can’t get it delivered quickly enough, you may have lost whatever opportunity you had to capture customers. More important, if the quality sucks it may cost you more than you can imagine. A few months ago if I had Googled “Toyota quality” the top hit would have been something like this Wikipedia entry which describes the importance of quality in Toyota’s manufacturing methods. Instead the top link is now “Toyota Chief admits quality lapses,” one of many news articles about Toyota’s recent woes. Quality stands out as the most significant management imperative of the 20th century, beginning in the 1920s when Walter Shewhart applied statistical theory to quality control. His principles lived on in the work of W. Edwards Deming, who along with quality gurus such as Joseph Juran and Kaoru Ishikawa, established a mid-20th century quality movement in Japan that birthed concepts such as Total Quality Management, Total Quality Control and Kaizen. Some argue that the quality movement has faded, but its demise is greatly overstated, and the quest for quality continues to live on in standards such as Six Sigma and ISO 9000. More significantly, quality management is no longer limited to manufacturing but has been adopted by domains such as government services, healthcare, education and environmental management.

The reality is that you can’t have innovation without successful execution and you can’t have that without successful collaboration and that in turn is dependent on basic working productivity. The mistake that almost every novice jazz musician makes is in trying to base their improvisations on fancy, innovative melodic, harmonic and/or rhythmic elements when they don’t even have the basics firmly within their grasp. The first thing one must do is work on playing in tune and in time with a strong groove. The budding jazz musician must develop technical proficiency but this is not necessarily so they can play fancy riffs but primarily to allow them to increase their situational and group awareness. One of the most important skills of highly effective people is their ability to allocate a sizable portion of their personal bandwidth to collaboration. Think about the work related tasks at which you are most proficient. Chances are you can do some of those things on autopilot, allowing you to simultaneously perform another task or even two. Or perhaps you can easily complete these tasks in less time than it would take someone without your level of proficiency. We each have limited cycles but the more proficient we are at the routine tasks the more aware we can be of our surroundings. Imagine a drummer who has to think constantly about where to place his or her limbs, how to hold the sticks, which drums to hit and how to co-ordinate both arms and legs. A person doing all that will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain awareness of what is going on with the other musicians, the audience and the combined sound. Now imagine a drummer for whom playing is a routine exercise. He or she can perform all the necessary fundamentals and still have sufficient personal bandwidth to monitor everything else that is happening, communicate with the other musicians, respond to changes and engage in interplay. If you’re not even aware of what’s going on around you, how can you collaborate effectivelyand ensure that what you do is aligned with and not in conflict with the efforts of your colleagues?

People talk about innovation all the time but many of them should be thinking about more fundamental things. The reality is that execution is extremely difficult and a lot of people, while they can talk and plan and theorize about doing fancy stuff, have a lot of trouble just getting a solid offering delivered at the right time. An often quoted adage is that you should “learn to crawl before you walk.” In the same way you should learn to execute before you innovate. However walking is probably only equivalent to simply executing. Dancing would be innovating. However that’s for another discussion.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

Agility demands a balance between planning and improvisation

Mar 14, 2010 by

In my previous post I made reference to a book called “Rework.” One of the assertions put forward by the book’s authors is “Planning is guessing.” It’s easy to see how critics could jump on this but the authors of Rework are pretty clear that they are referring to long-term planning. What’s most interesting is their claim that “Plans are inconsistent with improvisation.” They point out that you must be able to improvise to take advantage of opportunities that come along. I’ll add that you must be able improvise to handle unexpected problems. Of course we each deal with small problems every day but how do you prepare for the problems that generate extreme change?

United States Army officer Major Brian L. Steed refers to situations of extreme change as aberrations. In his book, Piercing the Fog of War, Steed studied seven famous battles in which unrecognized extreme change had a profound effect on victory or defeat. Aberrational events are not simply confined to war. Epistomologist Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to aberrational events as Black Swans and wrote at length about the concept in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The term Black Swan comes from the 17th century European assumption that “all swans are white” simply because no one had ever seen a black swan. This assumption fell apart when black swans were found in Western Australia in the 18th century. Taleb classifies Black Swan events as having low predictability and high consequence. People attempt to rationalize such events retrospectively by finding ways to explain how they could have been or were predicted. This illusion of retrospective predictability is a form of cognitive bias known as the hindsight bias. We are often encouraged to expect the unexpected yet this seems somewhat nonsensical. If you could expect the unexpected then it wouldn’t be unexpected. Expecting the unexpected is really about being agile enough to respond to unexpected problems when they occur.

In the sport of rallying, the navigator or co-driver helps prepare the driver for what lies ahead by reading off “pacenotes.” This is a form of planning. Yet no pacenotes can give them foresight of aberrational events. A perfect example is the time Federico Villagra and his co-driver Jose Diaz were driving their Ford Focus RS WRC 08 in the first stage of the World Rally Championship Portugal Rally. Racing through the Patagonian hills, they rounded a turn, crested a small hill and drove straight into a herd of wild horses crossing the road!

In business, a similar event would be the sudden appearance of a new competitor with the ability to completely outclass all existing players. The entrance of Google into the Internet search engine business is such an example. Such aberrational events can shock a system and render it unable to respond. Events of a catastrophic nature can produce similar shock. Think about how the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 had a sudden, dramatic effect on economics and on people’s lives around the world. These kinds of events are simply outliers and they are very hard to predict and plan for although you can build generally robust systems and organizations that may have a better chance of weathering such storms.

The kind of planning that can be problematic is the highly detailed micro-planning that can limit agility. Ultimately success depends on a balance between planning and improvisation. In music performance you can plan ahead by composing the notes that each musician may play and then rehearsing the act of playing the parts together as an ensemble all before the big performance takes place. If you’re not going to do this then you must be able to improvise the notes to play. Improvisation is not just for jazz musicians although jazz musicians employ it to a large degree. In recent years classical pianist Gabriela Montero has been reviving the lost art of classical improvisation.

Even in jazz performances improvisation may be employed in varying degrees. In a jazz orchestra performance improvisation may only be utilized by specific musicians in certain sections of the music. In a small group performance such as that of a trio or quartet, the musicians might improvise most of the time but even then they are working within a framework of chord changes and playing or at least beginning in a predetermined key and usually with a predetermined tempo. In recent years I’ve been fortunate enough to practice free improvisation on a regular basis and even more fortunate to get paid for it. In these sessions, which admittedly only employ two or three musicians, we perform for a dance class and play with almost no planning for almost two hours with short breaks. Each piece varies in length between three to ten minutes and begins with the musicians having no idea of key, tempo, meter, groove and or melodic ideas. We determine those things during the course of the performance. Last year and this year I attempted to evolve this concept even further by having a much larger group of musicians perform with the same lack of planning. The results were wildly successful but only because each of the participants was experienced enough in the art of improvisation and understood the need to employ such important principles as putting the health of the ensemble and its performance ahead of their own individual creative explorations, quickly building and maintaining trust and respect, listening and exchanging ideas, and taking the initiative to lead at appropriate times.

The less planning you can do the more agile you can be. However less planning requires that you compensate with strong improvisation. The ability to improvise depends not only on the talents of team members but on the specifics of each situation. You might be a strong improviser but if you’re working with others who may not be able to readily respond to your unplanned actions, you risk destabilizing your team’s efforts. Improvisation may also be unwise when there is a great deal at stake or when an activity is particularly fragile or sensitive to change.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

Heeding advice: filter and apply

Mar 14, 2010 by

There’s a new book out called Rework written by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of web application company 37signals. The pages of Rework are crammed full of straightforward business advice served up in bite-size chunks with each point covered in just one or two pages. This makes the book easy to read and the various points are grouped into important categories such as:

  • Go
  • Progress
  • Productivity
  • Competitors
  • Evolution
  • Promotion
  • Hiring

The book is clearly intended to shock. The attention-grabbing cover design is well-suited for a manifesto containing assertions such as “Ignore the real world” and “Learning from mistakes is overrated.” Not surprisingly the book has generated a lot of controversy. The simplistic view of the spectrum of reactions is that you have on one side the traditionalists saying that the book is not just bad but dangerous and on the other side the young fans of 37signals who treat this book as a new business bible.

I can agree with most of the points made in Rework or I at least understand the reason for their inclusion in the book. Rework needs to shock its readers because many people are stuck in a rut. They continue to use the same set of practices despite a lack of success and they do so without understanding why they are using those practices. In many cases they do this simply because it’s the way they’ve always done things. Yet the advice of Rework must be taken with a grain of salt and most importantly it must be applied in measure. It is always dangerous to claim or imply that any rule is universally applicable or that it should be adopted as a best practice. Why is this? The problem is that the adjective “best” is really a misnomer as it implies that something can’t get any better. Mary Poppendieck, an authority in the world of agile and lean software development, quotes Taiichi Ohno, originator of the Toyota Production System, on this point:

“There is something called standard work, but standards should be changed constantly. Instead, if you think of the standard as the best you can do, it’s all over. The standard work is only a baseline for doing further kaizen. It is kai-aku [change for the worse] if things get worse than now, and it is kaizen [change for the better] if things get better than now. Standards are set arbitrarily by humans, so how can they not change?”

Best practices are usually defined when they are found to be effective in a particular circumstance. The danger is that some will assume that these practices should be applied equally in all circumstances. Every situation is different. Most activities are sufficiently complex that there are a myriad of constantly changing factors. Not only must any set of best practices be applied uniquely to each activity but their effect must be monitored over time. To do otherwise may lead to degrading performance as circumstances change and people fail to respond appropriately, taking false comfort in practices that might have been the best choice at one time but now require re-consideration. This risk needs to be considered across different activities and companies but also within companies. Does the application of corporate-wide policies always make sense?

Even Fried, in response to a scathing critique of his book, wrote: “Reasonable people understand these apply in most (but not all!) situations” and added:

“I do think a lot of our ideas can apply to a very broad spectrum of businesses.

I’ve personally heard from thousands of business owners in just about every industry who’ve told me many of the ideas we espouse work beautifully for them in their businesses.

But, no of course I don’t believe any idea applies to everyone.”

The more detailed a practice the greater the risk that applying it naively will lead to problems. Fundamental principles such as Employ Top Talent are more likely to hold true in a variety of situations. However, heeding such principles requires that you define concrete practices. If you apply any principle you must do so in a way that makes sense for you and your specific situation. In their quest to get through to those that just keep doing things the same old way even when those methods aren’t working, zealots of certain processes and methodologies may claim universal benefits without detailing the costs of such approaches. In the end it’s up to you to filter and apply.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

Making repeat collaboration work

Mar 7, 2010 by

Harvard Business Review editor, Andrew O’Connell, asks “Does Repeat Collaboration Really Kill Creativity?” The short answer is that it can. Yet as O’Connell points out, there are collaborations that can remain highly creative for a long time.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

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